Friday, February 8, 2013

Stereotyping in Writing

I was recently in a dialog with some other writers where the issue of the portrayals of race and gender came up with regards to writing. The question came up of whether it's taboo to portray anyone who is not a white male in a negative light. This is a tough thing to discuss, because it has the potential to go off in so many different directions. First of all, of course, I think it's very possible to make a case that no such taboo exists, and that there are in fact plenty of examples in contemporary fiction where villains, minor characters and flawed protagonists exist who are not white males. The "taboo" in question is more about portraying people who have been underrepresented in a particular genre of fiction (or the media in general) in a stereotypically negative light.

A female character who is overly emotional, vain, bad at math, and who lacks a sense of the big picture may raise some hackles, especially in the absence of female characters in said story with different qualities. This does not mean that there aren't some women out there who really have some, or even most, of the negative traits traditionally associated with femininity (one can also argue that the assessment of some traits as negatives is subjective as well, but that's another topic). But women have been historically been denied access to many rights and choices based on these stereotypes. Some of us are even old enough to remember being told that certain careers were inadvisable or that certain activities or behaviors were just not appropriate for us.

So guess what? The stereotypes still rankle sometimes.

I think one can make the same argument for negative stereotypes associated with cultures, ethnicities, religions and orientations that have historically been in the minority, or historically had their humanity denied based on these stereotypes. There may be a time when these stereotypes are so comfortably in history's rear window--far enough away from the daily lives and experiences of the people who have been their victims for them to not be so hurtful--but I really don't think that we're there yet.

I think, also, that there is another issue that people often forget. There is no way to write any character in a way that will please or appeal to everyone or represent the "true and quintessential" experience of being a member of a particular group or subgroup of humanity. Lest one throws up ones hands and says, "Well I'm damned no matter how I write a minority or female character, so I'll just avoid writing them entirely," I'll point out that the relatively limited number of women and minority characters in traditional fantasy is precisely why one ends up feeling like every character from such a group is an ambassador for his or her entire group--something no one person or character can ever be. The only solution is to write a variety of characters and to do so with a reasonable amount of care and awareness of negative stereotypes while still allowing your character to be an individual.

Issues related to identity are still confusing at times. Most of us belong to many groups simultaneously, and we may identify more strongly with some than others. If you belong to a group that has been treated by our culture as the default "norm," you likely don't spend as much time thinking about it as you do thinking about your identities that lie outside that perceived "neutral" status (which, I hate to say, in the US, is still white, male, Christian, heterosexual etc).

I think one promising development is that we live in a time and place where very few people self identify, let alone take pride in, being prejudiced. This means that it is natural to feel a mixture of shame, fear, and guilt when someone suggests that one has expressed a prejudice of some kind. It's easy to get angry or defensive or deny the accusation categorically. Sometimes the hardest thing of all is to listen to someone else's arguments and to spend some time thinking about whether there is any truth in them or whether they are simply one person's opinion.


  1. I think the key thing is, as you say, to have a sufficiently number of relevant characters, at least across a whole body of work and preferably within a story, that they simply come over as individuals. I have a story, for instance, where the second-principal character is an appallingly spoilt princess who, in isolation, could be viewed as a negative stereotype (for women - I don't think anyone cares about stereotypes of royalty). In this case, the main character, her long-suffering bodyguard, is also a woman who shares none of those negative qualities, so (I hope) is comes over as being negative about that particular character, not as about women. For that matter, I have a similar character in another story who's a prince.

  2. As a princess, I deeply resent your implications that we are all spoilt and isolated from reality ;)

    Just kidding. But I think you have it spot on. I also think that there are getting to be enough women in mainstream fantasy that an occasional character with at least some stereotypes is okay. It can be a bit harder when you're dealing with characters who are members of true minorities (for legitimate reasons) in the context of ones' setting or world, and when these individuals are underrepresented in the media and in fiction in general.

  3. I particularly like what you said in the end here (not that the whole article wasn't excellent, but the end particularly caught my eye). I agree that it's a sign that things are moving in the right direction by the simple fact that it is a general social consensus that prejudice and negative stereotypes are now seen for what they really are and are something people actively try to avoid. Articles like these are a sign that our genre is one that can, will, and is changing, and not by forgetting about the past, but incorporating the future.

  4. Sadly, there are still active bigots out there, and the internet is the place where they seem most likely to crawl out of the woodwork. I guess when you feel a bit anonymous, you feel comfortable saying Sexist things. The other place where people feel comfortable expressing these sentiments is family gatherings. I have a couple of relatives, unfortunately, who loathe Hillary Clinton, but the most "logical" reason they can come up with for not wanting her to run for president is that "we don't want a woman running our country."

    And don't get me started about the tacky jokes about our president that are clearly inspired by his ethnicity as much as by his politics.

    Whether or not someone likes or agrees with a candidate's political philosophy is their call, but the fact that race and gender are still such strong considerations for some people makes me sad. At least it looks like it's an issue for increasingly fewer people.

  5. Exactly. One of my favorite quotes of all time (which I planned to save for my article, but I'll gladly share it here) is actually from the TV show Designing Women:
    We ain't what we should be, and we ain't what we gonna be, but at least we ain't what we was.